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X-Factor: Jeremy Roach's playmaking can boost Duke men's basketball against a struggling Louisville team

Roach has had nine assists in each of his last two games.
Roach has had nine assists in each of his last two games.

Before Duke hits the road Saturday to visit ACC foe Louisville, here is a player from each team that can be the difference-maker:

Duke: Jeremy Roach

He may not be lighting up the stat sheet in the conventional sense, but the Blue Devils’ sophomore point guard has been much improved since last season and was a crucial cog in Tuesday’s nail-biting home win against Clemson. Roach put up eight points, four boards and nine assists in his 40 minutes against the Tigers, including a commanding dribble into the paint for an unguarded one-hand slam dunk late in the second half. His strength isn’t in his scoring as much as it is in his playmaking and defensive abilities–a welcome boon to his more offensively inclined teammates like paint-stalking Paolo Banchero or AJ Griffin on the wings. Roach has been personally responsible for 71 assists this term, including nine in each of his last two games, and 21 steals, hounding opposing players at the top of the arc and playing catalyst for fast breaks and highlight-reel put-downs by his teammates in the key.

At least given current season trends, it seems unlikely Roach will lead the team in points or rebounds on Saturday, but he very well could again be a dispenser of assists and a threat from deep if Banchero or Mark Williams are guarded in the paint. His steady handling, penchant for shot-creating passes and stamina made him an asset against Clemson and will give head coach Mike Krzyzewski confidence that he can put in a sizable playmaking shift if Duke needs an extra bit of oomph.

It’s been a bounce-back season for the Blue Devils and a season of growth for Roach, and Saturday’s game could be yet another opportunity for the Leesburg, Va., native to further cement himself as an integral piece of a talented, competitive roster.

Louisville: Malik Williams

Despite an inspiring start that saw Louisville sit as high in the ACC as second at one point, the Cardinals have seen a concerning recent slide with double-digit losses to Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and a rebuilding Virginia. Fifth-year forward Malik Williams has been a bright spot in a dark patch, though, putting up great point-scoring numbers and threatening on both the offensive and defensive glass. In 19 games, Williams has averaged 10.0 points and 8.5 rebounds, a statline that encompasses a monstrous 20 point showing against Georgia Tech and double-digit games in Louisville’s three recent losses.

One of the key takeaways from Tuesday’s Clemson game was Duke’s inability to dominate the rebound contest. The Blue Devils registered just three offensive rebounds to the Tigers’ 14, and Clemson was able to keep the contest close because of it. If Duke is once again wasteful on the offensive glass, Williams will be there to punish it, using his 6-foot-11 frame to ably compete with the biggest men Krzyzewski fields. Like it’s been for much of this season for Louisville, much of the rebounding and scoring burden will likely fall on Williams’ shoulders Saturday. Should he assume it with the aplomb he has in recent weeks, he may just be the force the Cardinals need to (literally) block the Blue Devil onslaught and get back to winning ways.

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